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Stop Yeshayahu Leibowitz!

By failing to name a street after the controversial philosopher, the city of Jerusalem proved he was right

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Yeshayahu Leibowitz. (Bracha L. Ettinger via Wikimedia Commons)
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There’s a street in Jerusalem named after Benjamin Netanyhau’s father and another named after David Ben Gurion. Some streets are named after famous rabbis, others after former mayors. Many have biblical names, and some are named after fruit or animals. One street is even named Stairway to Heaven, which may or may not have something to do with the Led Zeppelin song. But there’s no street in Jerusalem named after the world-famous philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Last week, just moments before the city council was slated to vote on whether to honor the late Jerusalemite by attaching his name to a sliver of the city in which he’d lived, the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, withdrew the proposal, bringing the decade-long effort to commemorate Leibowitz to a fizzle.

There are many reasons why one might have opposed bestowing upon Leibowitz the high honor of cartographic permanence in Jerusalem: His views on Judaism were controversial, his politics radical, and his tongue swift and sharp. In July of 1967, just a month after the Six Day War, he wrote a public letter decrying the ecstatic triumphalism most Israelis felt in light of their quick and glorious military victory. Tongue firmly in cheek, Leibowitz, then already in his late 60s, suggested that the newly liberated Western Wall be turned into a discotheque, named “The Disco of the Divine Presence.” This, he wrote, would please everyone, “the secularists because it’s a disco, and the religious because it’s named after the Divine Presence.”

The war and its aftermath gave Leibowitz new prominence. He was already known as a chemist and a supremely interesting thinker who believed, riffing on the Rambam and taking Maimonides’ thought to its logical end, that faith was irrelevant and that observing the commandments was the only thing that mattered. For these views and others, he was celebrated and accursed, but he was hardly a household name. This changed with the sudden conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the settlement project that followed. The occupation, Leibowitz warned then, would bring about a catastrophe. Once Israelis came to understand their ethnic and religious identity as inseparable from the state and its army, he argued, they had embarked on a path not dissimilar from that pursued by the Germans in the 1940s. An Israeli Auschwitz, Leibowitz said, with Palestinians recast as Jews, was “inevitable.”

It was just one of many Holocaust-inflected statements he made. Born in Riga in 1903, and having emigrated to Palestine in 1935, Leibowitz had escaped the Nazi horrors, but they nonetheless remained vivid in his mind. Criticizing Israeli judges who permitted the torturing of Arab detainees, he called them “Judeo-Nazis”; in the four decades that have passed since, the coinage lost little of its shock value.

Despite his passion for political bomb-throwing, however, Leibowitz was first and foremost a complex and original thinker. Like his cousin, Isaiah Berlin, he saw positive liberty—the power to fulfill one’s potential, as opposed to negative liberty, which was merely the absence of restraint—as central, and argued that only by observing the mitzvot could a Jew overcome his base nature and assert his true freedom. Also like Berlin, Leibowitz was a deeply humanist thinker, although he often denied it by arguing that it was only Halachah, not universal morals, that mattered to him. Few took the distinction to heart.

As the divide between Israel’s left wing and its right grew deeper, Leibowitz became a prophet of sorts for a generation of liberal Israelis who would embark on pilgrimages to the professor’s modest house in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. He would receive them warmly, speaking more softly than he did when thundering about God and war and the settlements. He had once said that a prophet was someone who spoke not of what was going to happen, but of what ought to happen, and to many young Israelis, this was precisely what Leibowitz was doing.

Like every prophet, he approached his earthly travails with a measure of indifference. In 1993, for example, he was nominated for the Israel Prize, the nation’s top honor. Shortly after his nomination was announced, he spoke in a political gathering in Tel Aviv and argued that the Mista’arvim—an elite IDF unit that dressed up like Palestinians, infiltrated villages and towns, and conducted arrests—were Israel’s equivalent of the Hamas. The bereaved father of a Mista’arev killed in action sued Leibowitz for libel, and a call to retract the prize rapidly gained supporters on the right. Leibowitz, on his end, was unfazed. “I didn’t consider the entanglement that will follow after my nomination for the Israel Prize was announced,” he said. “Now I wish not to receive it. I already got my recognition. My honor is intact.”

It was a remarkable conclusion to a remarkable affair, one in which all sides behaved with restraint wildly uncharacteristic of Israel’s tempestuous political climate: Arguments were made, counterarguments were offered in return, and everything was calmly and politely resolved.

And, for a while, it seemed like the most recent controversy involving an attempt to honor Leibowitz by naming a street after him would follow the same pattern. Yosef “Pepe” Alalu, a city council member for the left-wing Meretz party and the driving force behind the naming initiative, got up and said that “naming a street after Yeshayahu Leibowitz doesn’t just honor the man, it honors the city.” On the other end of the political divide was Likud councilman Elisha Peleg, who argued that Leibowitz “hated the IDF and incited against it. He dismissed fundamental Jewish traditions and called for discord within the Jewish people.” The late professor, Peleg concluded, “isn’t worthy of being commemorated in Jerusalem.”

But while reading aloud a list of Leibowitz’s most incendiary comments, all of which contained at least a grain of truth and were intended to provoke arguments both philosophical and practical, Peleg included one he knew would have a profound effect on his listeners: The professor, he reminded his fellow council members, had once called Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, a “stupid idiot.”

The nature of halachic Judaism or the occupation of the West Bank can be debated endlessly, and even calmly, by intelligent people, but a decades-old insult to Ovadia Yosef? The debate about the late great philosopher and provocateur of Jerusalem was now over. “In light of these harsh quotes” said Eli Simhayoff, the chairman of the Shas faction in the city council, “we are sweepingly voting against (the proposal) and are condemning every word he said against our master.” With Shas and the Torah Judaism, another ultra-Orthodox party, holding nearly half of the council’s seats, the proposal seemed doomed. Rather than risk a public spectacle, Mayor Barkat withdrew the proposal.

It was an ending Leibowitz himself might have enjoyed, and certainly one that wouldn’t have felt foreign to the small and slim scholar with the thick glasses. Having spent considerable time decrying any connection between religion and the state, he was now being censured by clerical servants in senior political posts. Naming a street after a philosopher is one sort of honor, but proving him right may be the highest possible tribute to his memory.

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LetsCAction says:

Yes, hard to understand why a person who equated Israelis with Nazis would be denied his own street in Jerusalem.

It was meant as an incendiary remark…as someone who escaped that nightmare himself, Leibowitz was interested only in shedding a light on the miscalculations — about which we realize he augured truthfully — of the Israeli right in maintaining certain aspects of the occupation that are, frankly, unnecessary

Ariram says:

Calling Israeli soldiers “Judeonatzis” is a very good reason not to honor him with a street in Jerusalem.

Jacob Arnon says:

What a cynical essay, Mr. Leibovitz. Is Yeshayahu Leibowitz (the spelling notwithstanding) a relative of yours

Jacob Arnon says:

Inceidiary remark just cause fires and bring fireman to extinguish them, they seldom lead clairifcatkion.

btw: real ewnemies of Israel take comfort in such language and can justify their own vile antismeitic views by ciitng an Israeli who used similar language.

He did give aid and comfort to enemies of the Jewish people.

9Athena says:

Nasty words about the IDF; sharp criticisms about Israeli strategies- the man was no diplomat and had a different view about how to run the country. Not a lovely guy. But as it happens, sometime such a person can strike gold. He was right on about Ovadia Yosef.

LucidGal says:

Being a demagogue and contrarian doesn’t make one a great thinker and certainly not a prophet.

He equated the approved use of torture by Israeli Jews with the actions of the Nazis, not ‘all Israelis’. Nowadays, the Israeli right calls these judges ‘Bolsheviks’ – in a way that the Nazis accused their opponents of being Bolsheviks. Leibovitz was a deeply provocative man – and he raises many worthy and serious concerns – many of which have come true.

Nonsense. Rabin was portrayed as a Nazi by many of the right before he was slaughtered as a result of such agitation and provocation. Did our enemies take comfort in that? Did YOU care about that? Did Netanyahu, who stood by and accepted such imagery and words, ever do anything about it? Perhaps we need to be a bit more intellectually honest about our own shortcomings rather than project everything in such a black and white manner according to our dogmas.

Almost all the great thinkers are contrarians. He was neither a prophet or a demagogue – he had no political power beyond thought and words. Demagogues are people like Lieberman, Kahane, Sharon in his heyday, Ovadiah Yosef is a demagogue. Demagoguery is practised almost daily by Israeli politicians across the spectrum. But Leibowitz was not one by a long shot. And BTW he did not ask to be a hero to the ‘Left’ – his views on religion where very clear. Keep to Torah and Halachah – and he gave that advice to secular people as well.

PhillipNagle says:

I never heard of him but the man described in the article was truely beneath contempt.

jcherniss says:

A very nice piece, even if it was only able to touch briefly on Leibowitz’s thought. There are however a couple of errors regarding Isaiah Berlin — who knew Lebowitz in Riga, was taught by the same Hebrew tutor, but was not Lebowitz’s cousin; and whose famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” made almost the opposite argument attributed to him here: that negative liberty was an essential condition for a decent society, while positive liberty was an ambiguous concept, prone to perversion. Berlin greatly admired Lebowitz, but eh philosophical distance between them was significant.

Jay Friedman says:

Why not merely name the street “Rechov Leibowitz”? Supporters can claim that it is named for Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Opponents can assert that it honors Nechama Leibowitz (his respected – but not controversial – sister.)

Natan79 says:

Jacob, I usually agree with you and disagree with Liel Leibovitz, who I have very good reasons to consider a toxic bastard. Nevertheless, I must do the opposite this time. Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s poor reputation among Jews is a sign of our times: most people don’t read someone’s books, instead they read articles written about the author by generally illiterate and often dishonest journalists. I did read a book by Yeshayahu Leibowitz: the man was a brilliant thinker and a deeply committed Jew and Zionist. Moreover, please read what Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote, not what the press says (or what I write to you): make your mind based on the data, not on someone’s interpretation.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz also was right on Ovadia Yosef, a foul-mouth fascist who insulted for many years Russian Jews who didn’t take to his Khomeini Judaism.

herbcaen says:

Herr Leibowitz was a sonei Yisrael, a hater of the Jewish people. The description of Leibowitz as a complex and original thinker could be applied to Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, and even Adolf Eichmann, who had decent relationships with a few individual Jews but had a mission to kill the Jewish people. The only difference between Leibowitz and Rosenberg, Heidegger and Eichmann is a foreskin-when it came to the Jewish people, all 4 men viewed them with contempt. If Leibowitz were alive today, he would be embracing Ahmadinejad. So the municipality is correct in not naming a street after a bitter enemy

Natan79 says:

Have you read ANYTHING of what he wrote, or is it just from the press? To ay he hated Israel is truly demented. You can say that of Ahmadinejad or Nazis, or of Jews from the far Left (Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Gideon Levy and other assorted Jewish helpers of murderers of Jews) or far Right (anyone from Neturei Karta). When you compare Leibowitz with them, it shows you’re an imbecile. Not any imbecile, but the fascist kind. It doesn’t bother you that Ovadia Yosef has been far more offensive to Jews than Leibowitz ever was. Yosef, our mullah, insulted 1 million Russian Jews because they didn’t follow his brand of Khomeini Judaism.

Natan79 says:

Meir is correct. The religious far Right in Israel is a bunch of parasites (not that the far Left is any better – they have Gideon Levy and Amira Hass). When I was serving in the IDF and was a moving target for Arabs, these holy bastards dodged the draft but insulted those of us who didn’t like amulets and wonder rabbis – baba this baba that. Whatever comes from Shas is shit. I’m glad Leibowitz insulted Ovadia Yosef. It shows he had both spine and sound judgment.

herbcaen says:

I have read Leibowitz’s work and based my comments upon this
1) Leibowitz was one of the first to compare Israel to the Nazis. He has thus given aid and comfort to enemies of the Jewish people
2) Leibowitz has made many disparaging remarks about the Jewish people, ie Discotel remarks. He did not have a high opinion of his fellow Jews
3) You lack derech eretz by insulting me. You havent addressed any of my comments, nor have you provided any evidence why Leibowitz wouldnt hang out with Chomsky, Butler Levy, or yourself
see you on the next flotilla. Perhaps the IHH and Hamas will name the boat after Leibowitz

Complete and utter nonsense. Sheer lies. Absolute Bullsh*t. You clearly have never read a word the man wrote. Do you go around daily being such a dishonest person?

Your comments are barely worthy of response. You just insult. To equate his pertinent points as being aligned with Eichmann simply cancels out any valid points you might make because you are simply mimicking what you accuse him of doing.

Natan79 says:

Go fuck yourself. I served in the IDF and defended Israel. You’re a piece fascist. Flotilla? Go to hell, liar. I put my life in line for Israel while you were wanking with fascists.

herbcaen says:

If you really did serve in the IDF, it is a sign of decline of the IDF. I dont believe that you defended Israel. Perhaps you have started to believe your own fantasies. Sadly, there are true veterans of the IDF who would join an IHH flotilla

Natan79 says:

Go fuck yourself bastard. And don’t come near me when I’m doing reserve duty in the IDF. You’re a fascist and a liar. You’re about as good as Yigal Amir, the murderer and racist to whom you most resemble intellectually.

Yisrael Medad says:

where is that Netanyahu Senior street located?

Yechiel Gordon says:

I agree. Prime Ministers of Israel have demonstrated no qualms about applying the methods of the Nazis.

As far back as 1943, five years before the founding of the state of Israel, future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir expressed the view in the LEHI journal that, “Nothing in Jewish morality nor Jewish tradition can be used to disallow terror as a means of war.

The Haganah archives also support your view. They list, for example, the names of forty Jews assassinated by Menachem Begin’s Irgun and LEHI forces.

Ariel Sharon’s close relationship with the neo-Nazi Argentian regime in the 1970s, Mossad’s teaching relationship with the SS-inspired SAVAK terror forces of the Shah, and Israel’s logistical support for the South African apartheid regime demonstrate a similar pattern.

Examples could be multiplied, but surely no one should get upset about a street bearing the name of a man who killed no one, but merely criticized violent policies with which he disagreed, while Israel certainly has honored other men whose philosophies were explicitly and clearly allied with those of the Nazis, and who actually killed people — Palestinian, Jewish and other.

Ira Kahn says:

I was a student at H.U. in the ’40s, a time when the profs would invite students to their homes for Fri night discussions. Prof Leibowitz was the high light of most of these meetings. No matter what the issue at hand, he would take an extreme opposing stance to those of the rest of us. with his sharp intellect and vulcanic tongue he would crush the sloppy thinking of his opponents. It soon became evident that he was enjoying these sadistic attacks rather than to making a point. Embarrassing his fellow profs before their students and making inflammatory assertions seem to be his favorite sport. As a moderate leftist, I have a lot of respect for the liberal ideology behind his tirades, but certainly not in the way he expressed them. Leibowitz exmplifies the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I would not be proud of an address in his name.

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Stop Yeshayahu Leibowitz!

By failing to name a street after the controversial philosopher, the city of Jerusalem proved he was right

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